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The Open Data Institute (ODI) is calling on UK political parties to adopt a number of manifesto commitments around data, digital and technology issues ahead of the upcoming general election.

Launched at a cross-party event in the House of Commons on 21 March 2024, the ODI’s “policy manifesto” sets out what it believes is needed from government policy to help create a strong, open and trusted data ecosystem the UK.

“This is particularly topical as 2024 is a big year for democracy, with billions of people voting globally and a strong likelihood of a UK general election,” said the ODI.

“The rapid development and wide availability of AI [artificial intelligence] systems have generated an explosion of interest in AI and its potential consequences. Issues around data, digital and technology are rising to the forefront of public consciousness, for example, the Post Office Horizon scandal, and the controversial Data Protection and Digital Information [DPDI] Bill that continues its parliamentary passage.

“The ODI wants to focus politicians’ and voters’ minds on the essential role of data. After all, without data, there is no AI.”

The ODI’s global head of policy, Resham Kotecha, told Computer Weekly that while the growing public consciousness around technologies like AI is positive, conversations need to be centred around the data underpinning it.

“If you look at the AI whitepaper and the government’s response to the consultation, it’s not explicit about data,” she said, adding that the ODI has recommended adding a sixth “data” principle to those outlined by government so that “everyone in the ecosystem really thinks about the datasets that underpin AI and what that means”.

Data protection and trust

Organised around six “guiding principles”, the ODI’s policy manifesto makes a number of recommendations for how the UK can build a thriving data ecosystem that benefits people, businesses, the environment and the economy.

Under the first principle of building “strong data infrastructure”, for example, the ODI said the government’s DPDI bill is a “missed opportunity” for the UK’s data ecosystem, as it weakens rather than strengthens people’s data rights.

The ODI is therefore calling for the next government to retain requirements around the need for organisations to conduct data protection impact assessments (DPIAs), and have data protection officers (both of which the current version of the DPDI bill is largely removing); protect and expand people’s information rights; and extend the freedom of information act to cover companies involved in providing public services.

The ODI added that while it’s broadly supportive of the government’s approach of empowering existing sectoral regulators to deal with AI in their contexts, there also needs to be a statutory underpinning to these powers.

Kotecha said that while the government’s AI whitepaper talks about strengthening the data ecosystem, its DPDI bill – and particularly the provisions around removing DPIAs and DPOs – will actually weaken data protection in the UK and undermine trust.

“You really need trust in the system … a significant part of it comes from people feeling that their data is safe and protected, that there’s assessments being done, that there’s routes to redress, that if there are challenges, they’ll be spotted,” she said.

“Removing the DPIAs in particular just means you end up in a position where you’re weakening trust in the system, and if you weaken trust in the system, people are less likely to want to share their data or have open data as a foundation.”

Noting recent stories about the Princess of Wales having her medical data unlawfully accessed by hospital staff, Kotecha added: “People are very worried now that their health data is not safe, if even the Princess of Wales isn’t safe. We do think that’s a challenge.”

On building up trust in data, the ODI added the next government must ensure ordinary citizens “meaningful participation” in data policy and operations, so they are empowered to shape how data is used for the public good; and place a much greater focus on data assurance, particularly through the development of better skills and best practice standards.

The ODI also said the DPDI Bill should be reformed in ways that build public trust by, for example, requiring the open publishing of DPIAs and reforming this assessment process so there is a proactive review of dataset harms to different communities and demographics.

It further recommended dropping controversial DPDI proposals giving the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) powers to surveil and access the bank accounts of benefits claimants.

Speaking at the ODI launch event, Labour’s shadow minister for creative industries and digital, Chris Bryant, described the measure as a “fishing expedition” that would ultimately damage trust in how the government handles people’s data.

Open data for social challenges

On the flip side of the coin, the ODI said there is a pressing need to address gaps in the current data infrastructure so that key data is made available to tackle societal challenges.

Speaking at the manifesto launch, Tory MP Damian Collins – who has sat on or chaired a number of tech-related select committees – said the public sector could be much more efficient in how it uses data, which is not the same as gathering lots of new data.

“The public sector holds a huge amount of data, it just doesn’t talk, it’s not connected, it’s not us in an efficient way,” he said. “Without seeking to gather lots of data that we don’t currently have, we want access and use that data in a whole new way, to transform public services.”

For Kotecha, part of the solution to opening up high-value data sets for public benefit is clear standards around interoperability, ethics and explainability.

“Yes, sometimes there’s a cost associated with it, but there’s more of a cost associated with having to backward-engineer things after, so if we were to put standards in place – and aim for interoperability on everything, obviously recognising that there are some elements of datasets that need extra protections or anonymity – that would be great,” she said, adding that “data becomes more powerful the more is shared and the more it can be overlaid with other datasets”.

Kotecha further added that while opening data like this could help the government target support to the people who need it most, it could also bring real benefit to ordinary households, particularly with the opening up of utilities data under smart data schemes, as it would allow consumers to both share and access more data from providers.

However, the ODI said realising these benefits also requires huge improvements in data literacy across society, from ordinary citizens all the way up to business leaders and policy makers. It also stressed the need for this upskilling to emphasise inclusion and diversity.

“Without such a focus, those making decisions with and about data and data-driven technologies will continue to come from the same privileged backgrounds, with marginalised groups being most likely to be harmed,” it said. “Changing this must be at the centre of any strategy for data and AI literacy and skills.”

Independent organisations and diversity

On the role that trusted, independent organisations in civil society have to play, the ODI said the government should earmark new funds to support organisations helping people exercise their data rights or challenge negative outcomes of technology.

It added that active support of credible organisations is needed to prevent power asymmetries between the public, private and third sectors, which could unduly influence public sector data and AI regulation decisions.

“UK government funding for independent civil society organisations has significantly reduced in recent years, and we are concerned that independent organisations like ours who care deeply about the equity of the data ecosystem are being defunded and are increasingly under-resourced,” it said.

“Global tech companies are increasingly stepping into the public sector data space and are influencing data and AI regulation. In our view, this risks the creation of a dangerous concentration of power and control in the hands of monopolistic private actors.”

Kotecha added that unlike big tech firms which have near-limitless resources to engage with official government consultation processes, most civil society organisations have to pick and choose which ones they get involved with due to the constraints around financial resources and capacity.

“Participation isn’t just opening a door,” she said. “It’s actually saying, ‘We will provide the support and the resources and the funding to enable you to contribute’.

“I imagine some of these big tech companies can call a secretary of state and get a meeting this week. Small organisations can’t, so how about opening up access and giving a real voice at the table?”

Linked to the need for more civil society voices is the need for greater diversity, equitability and inclusivity throughout the UK’s data ecosystem, with the ODI recommending giving researchers mandated access to data held by social media firms, as well as giving smaller firms greater access to data held by big tech for growth and innovation purposes.

“It is also critical for competition and economic growth that SMEs and startups are able to compete with big tech firms who will benefit from data asymmetries and network effects (where being able to link vast amounts of data leads to extraction of more value),” it said.

Speaking at the launch event, Lib Dem MP Daisy Cooper commented on how it was wrong that for many small IT companies, the business model revolves around growing to a point where they can be bought out by one of the big players: “That poses a real challenge for how you deal with monopolies in this space.”

Bryant similarly commented that tech firms have a tendency to vertically integrate throughout entire value chains, which means public sector buyers get locked in with certain providers, further disadvantaging new entrants.  

Kotecha added that, for the foreseeable future at least, it’s likely US big tech firms will continue to dominate the UK’s digital infrastructure.

“We need to think about if we want to create more nationalistic policy that means we protect businesses that we consider vital to our data or tech infrastructure from being bought by external, international companies,” she said.

“If we were to do that, I think we then have to recognise very much that we need to open up significant funding routes in the UK – the reason these companies go overseas, or get bought overseas or headquarter overseas, is because there’s significant funding available.

“If we want to force infrastructure to stay in the UK or be created in the UK, then we have to find a way to make it financially viable for them to grow here.”

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